Dishonoured by yobs: the hero who took a shortcut

Thomas Fletcher Waghorn. If you know Chatham, you know him. Yes you do. He’s the statue in Railway Street. Just below the station. Points to the old gent’s lavatories. Usually wears a no-waiting cone on his head.

Got him? Right. Any idea what he did? And why his statue is in Chatham? Read on.

Waghorn was a postal pioneer who shortened the overland route between England and India from three months to between 35 and 45 days. And why was that so important? Because, simply, time is money: Faster mail meant quicker and more competitive business.

He was a business hero who probably didn’t get the recognition he deserved — until his statue went up in Railway Street in 1888. Waghorn’s route shortened to the distance to India from 16,000 miles via the Cape of Good Hope, to 6,000 miles.

I am particularly pleased to mention Waghorn because his family came from Snodland — Medway’s equivalent to the “name one famous Belgian” joke.

Thomas was born in Chatham in 1800 and baptised at St Mary’s Church on 16 July. His father, also Thomas, was a butcher and had married Ann Goodhugh at All Saints’ Church, Snodland, on 28 July, 1794.

Thomas entered the Royal Navy at Chatham, joining HMS Bahama as a midshipman in November, 1812, and married Elizabeth Bartlett at St John’s Cathedral, Calcutta, in 1822. He became a pilot and took an interest in the early attempts at establishing a steamship route from England to India and the East. But the East India Company — which effectively ran that part of the sub-continent for Britain — showed a remarkable indifference to his ideas.

After leaving the Navy as a lieutenant in 1832 he made the journey to India via Egypt as an experiment to send mail. Disastrously, the journey took four and a half months — but on his way back he met the Pasha of Egypt, who supported his desert route idea.

Personal tragedy followed in March, 1834 when his wife died in Calcutta. By December, however, Waghorn had remarried — to Harriet Martin, daughter of the miller at Snodland and a neighbour of his mother. That month he also inherited a substantial estate from his grandfather and the couple lived in Rochester until building The Lodge in the upper High Street at Snodland about 1841.

Waghorn’s business plan began to flourish and he set up an agency in Cornhill, London, for conveying post — and passengers — to India via Egypt. Between 1835 and 1837 he lived among Arabs in the desert and laid the foundations for the overland route across the desert from Cairo to Suez. This involved building rest-houses and supplying guides, boats, horses and carriages for travellers.

He became deputy consul in Egypt in 1837, but soon fell out with the authorities. From 1840, the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) set up in competition with him, backed by the British government. The came another setback: 300 horses died in a plague. It was the end — and the Pasha bought him out.

Waghorn turned his attention to speeding the post in Europe, through the new railway system. He was successful, but the Government reneged on a deal to pay his expenses for the trials left him £5,000 in debt.

Waghorn died at his London home in Islington on 7 January, 1850. He was buried at All Saints’, Snodland, just outside the vestry door. The south wall of the nave bears a memorial to him.
Perhaps, as a mark of respect, Chatham’s yobs might stop crowning this great pioneer with road cones.

The wrong way — on a whim of Chatham tradesmen

Why does Waghorn point north? He should be pointing east, in the direction of the great overland route that he discovered. The answer comes in a letter from F. Sanders of Chatham, in the Chatham News of 24 February, 1950:

“Some time ago there was a certain amount of controversy in the News as to why Lieut Waghorn, discoverer of the overland route to India, should be pointing more or less due north instead of more of less due east.

“The solution to the mystery is this — During the year 1883, a well-known sculptor, Mr Armstead, was commissioned to execute a statue of Lieut Waghorn to perpetuate his memory in the Medway district. A site was chosen and Mr Armstead was invited to Chatham to inspect it and give his decision as to its suitability.

“The position for the proposed Waghorn memorial was to be a piece of land now part of Victoria Gardens on the opposite side of the road to the summit of Hamond Hill. The sculptor, on Saturday, 29 November, 1884, paid his visit and pronounced the site excellent in every way.

“He also proposed that the left hand of Lieut Waghorn should be seen holding a scroll as the symbol of the plans for the overland route to India. The right hand was to point to the east, and India. The memorial, if it had been erected where it was first proposed, would have let Lieut Waghorn face the top of Hamond Hill and his upraised right hand and arm would have pointed the way to the east, along the direction of New Road.

“Within three weeks the Chatham authorities altered their mind and backed by the strong opinion of local townsmen thought that it would be better on the vacant site opposite the Gibraltar Inn, where it now stands.
“The idea was that the main roads’ junction there, near the station from which visitors from all parts of the country and world detrained to pass into the town of Chatham, was a really fine position for the memorial, not only because it was in a commanding spot, but as also the first thing of interest to catch the incoming traveller’s eye.

“Owing to Lieut Waghorn having to face the top end of Railway Street, it put the memorial out of alignment with the east and that is why Lieut Waghorn on his stone base points north instead of east.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.